It is one of the joys of Shockheaded Peter that the musicians who sing with such relish of naughty children reaching grisly ends are so unorthodox themselves. Martyn Jacques and the Tiger Lillies, the cult cabaret combo who composed the junk opera’s songs, have been replaced for this production by avant-garde veteran David Thomas and his improvising Two Pale Boys. Thomas voice defies convention, rumbling and swooping as trumpeter Andy Diagram and guitarist Keith Moline employ a series of effects to warp and enhance each melody. These idiosyncrasies transform the texture of the songs in fascinating ways. Harriet’s dress burns to flickers of trumpet and beautifully glowing guitar, while Flying Robert soars on the otherworldly sound of Diagram singing through his trumpet’s distorting microphone.
Thomas doesn’t screech ‘dead’ with Jacques maniacal relish, and occasionally he renders the lyrics unintelligible, but his macabre wail and lovely baroque flourishes have a variety that Jacques never attained. And, unlike Jacques, he is a huge presence, dominating the toy box set and contrasting comically with wiry Julian Bleach, with whom Thomas appears to be curiously furious throughout. There are some terrifying volatile moments, particularly during Johnny Head-in-Air, when it seems Thomas will actually attack Bleach. This crackling tension, Thomas’ dark intonations and the Two Pale Boys’ creepy creaks and chords render the show far scarier than in previous productions, the scenes between songs, following Struwwelpeter’s parents, seem lethargic by comparison.